There is an inevitability to the spread of misinformation. When threatened, we grasp at shadows of information, rumoured half-truths, glimpses of intelligence - or seeming intelligence - that might simultaneously warn and protect us.
For many months the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa gained little, if any, traction in global mainstream media. Small pockets of coverage would break out sporadically but only in recent weeks has the spread of information reached epidemic proportions. Sadly, much information is 'misdiagnosed', harmful rather than helpful to those currently and potentially involved.
Crisis communication plans have been shredded and rewritten as those at the heart of the outbreak work to help communities understand how to protect themselves and their loved ones. This is not a case of simply making information available. Far more important is developing an understanding of a situation that leaves people directly at odds with deeply held beliefs, customs and practices - particularly when it comes to dealing with dead friends and family members.
A new site - Ebola Deeply - has been launched and aims to chronicle the crisis, providing an aggregated base for reports, information, reaction as well as personal narratives from those most affected by this devastating disease.
This World Economic Forum blog post has a great deal to say about the information crisis that surrounds the current Ebola outbreak and, for communicators everywhere, I would highlight the following observation made in the blog:
"Crisis coordination and global governance systems are in use, but they have never had to cope with something of this kind. In terms of urgency, it is the magnitude of the 2004 Asian tsunami or the 2010 Haiti earthquake, coupled with the intensity and volatile nature of the 2003 SARS epidemic. None of the ways we traditionally do things is going to work now."
Back in July, I shared this incredibly powerful piece by Umaru Fofana on Medium titled 'How to Ignore a Plague'. At that point, Médecins Sans Frontières was describing the situation as 'out of control', having declared the Ebola outbreak to be an emergency as long ago as March. Even though the first case - a child - was tracked to December 2013, the World Health Organisation has been surprisingly slow off the mark, only issuing their response road map in August.
In our interconnected world, we proudly boast that news travels fast, that we can hear and see everything unfold as it happens. We can be 'part of the action' and subsequently change the world. But what happens when the interconnected world largely chooses to ignore the fateful news that comes knocking on the door? And why does the 'interconnected world' choose to react slowly to such news - or not at all?
Tragically, I suspect it is because the first countries affected are considered too poor, too far away or economically insignificant. I believe that if the first outbreak had occurred in the UK or the US - or even here in New Zealand, despite our position tucked away on the edge of the Pacific - swifter action would have been taken and more attention paid.
Now the predictions have begun. The world is doing the maths. Myths and legends are being created and, at the heart of the crisis, those most severely affected continue to suffer. I hope the information flow improves and that communication builds understand and prompts the necessary actions.
I would urge all of my colleagues and friends to share eboladeeply.org and, as the situation begins to encompass others around the world, remember the WEF blog quote - 'None of the ways we traditionally do things is going to work now".
New response road maps must be drafted and made ready - for roads we have never walked before.